How reliance on experts gets us into hot water

This article from New Scientist reports a recent study that shows how relying on expert advice actually makes people give up trying to figure out solutions on their own.

This phenomenon has both adaptive and non-adaptive effects.

It is evolutionarily adaptive by being a “conformity-enforcing” phenomenon that can kick in when a large group needs to quickly move in the same direction in order to survive a big threat.   It’s also adaptive when the issues are extremely complex and most members of the population don’t have the knowledge or experience to really evaluate the risks and make a good decision.

It is evolutionarily non-adaptive when there is still a lot of confusion around the issue, when the experts themselves don’t agree, and when many experts are guided by narrow interests that don’t serve the group (like increasing and protecting their own personal prestige and wealth).

In our current global and national situation, our knowledge and systems have now evolved to the point where nearly all of the most critical threats to our survival are caused by our own, human, activities and decisions, and where these same issues are now so complex that it’s almost impossible to expect a relatively small number of experts to understand them well enough  to make the correct decisions (even forgetting personal biases).

Our survival now rests on our ability to engage the knowledge and wisdom of hundreds of thousands and even millions of people in order to make collective decisions.    As we all know this is a huge challenge – given our current tendencies to tear each other apart over disagreements, instead thinking together for the higher good.

There has to be a way!   We need leaders like Obama, who understand that we all have to be involved in solutions to national and global problems.  We also can’t make ridiculous expectations that require these leaders to immediately come up with the right solutions.  Currently many of us are simply sitting on the side-lines second-guessing them, or else looking for ways to ridicule their ideas.

(For example see this piece by David Rothkopf in the Washington Post.  At the end of his piece he seems to agree with the paragraph above.  But at the beginning of the piece he can’t resist ridiculing Obama and his team for not being omniscient.)

We also need some significant advances in understanding “collective intelligence” that also elevates “collective consciousness” rather than being “mined” for the good of the few.

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1 Response to “How reliance on experts gets us into hot water”



  1. 1 Why are we doing this KM thing? « Enlightened tradition Trackback on March 31, 2009 at 9:55 pm

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